Monday, April 21, 2014
The Associated Press
MONTPELIER, Vt. - A Vermont judge has banned the small town of Franklin from holding a prayer at the opening of its annual town meeting in March, ruling that the tradition is unconstitutional.
The superior court judge sided last week with a Franklin woman who sued to have the prayer blocked after repeatedly objecting to it at the meetings over the years.
"This is wonderful because it shows that a court in the United States believes in the principles that this nation and this state were founded on," Marilyn Hackett said Friday.
Hackett had argued that the Christian prayer violated the Vermont Constitution's protection against forced participation in religious worship. Superior Court Judge Martin Maley agreed.
"The Court concludes that Ms. Hackett was compelled to attend religious worship," he said in his decision, turning down arguments from the town that Hackett was never forced to recite any words, and never told she must attend the prayer to vote.
But the court rejected her argument that she was denied equal access to a public location.
"Plaintiff was never denied access or entry to town meeting -- she attended every meeting since 2000," he said.
The court will hold a hearing to determine the damages to be awarded to Hackett, who is seeking legal fees.
This is a great victory for religious liberty," said Bernie Lambek, who represented Hackett as an American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont cooperating attorney.
Only a small number of Vermont towns -- about a dozen out of more than 100 -- include some sort of prayer in town meeting, Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has said.